Revelation 21:1–6 (NRSV)
The New Heaven and the New Earth
21 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
They will be his peoples,
And God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
Mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
For the first things have passed away.”
5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
There is nothing I like more than talking about the journey I traveled with Christ. Every day I sit with scripture it is as if something new has been spoken directly to me. Even verses that I have read hundreds of times before seem to be new. I sit in prayer considering a passage, considering the people of ancient days that first heard or experienced the events or words that I have read, and I just get lost in the moment. Meditating on scripture, letting the words saturate our being and become part of who we are is part of discipleship. It is the reality of the seal that John speaks about the Revelation of Jesus Christ.
Often we get caught up in the imagery of the mark of the beast and the seals of believers, the rapture and the tribulations, and the symbolism of the message and we can forget that the words that Jesus spoke and the vision that He gave to John to write down for the churches to hear, were written not to scare the hell out of people but to provide encouragement and hope. The concept of the marks on the bodies of humankind in this book are to represent a contrast between the different types of people the people that have clothed themselves in Christ and people that have clothed themselves in the ways of the world. People that are saturated with the living Spirit and those that are saturated with spirit of the adversary.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” This is the verse that really got me going this week. “I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” It is an exciting verse for many reasons, the first is the idea that everything that is bad about this life will be replaced with something even better. The second is one that plays off of the first, but is a bit deeper, it is what is working beneath the surface, the mechanism that gets us to the reality.
“Then I saw…” When we read these words our mind immediately attaches itself to the sensory concept of sight, but in the philosophy of the ancient people of the Empire have various meanings for sight. One is what we see with our eyes, but it goes deeper. Sight was attached to knowledge, to know something was to see it. This is one of the reasons that the sculptures of the ancient Greeks were so detailed and life like, they would study and gain different perspectives and then interpret them into the stone. It is also the irony of Homer the great witness of Greek mythology, he provided them with much of their faith yet he was blind. So when John says “then I saw,” he means he visually gazed upon something, and also perceived or began to understand the world around him from a different perspective. I want us to hold onto this for a moment. He saw things in a different light and a different angle. This perspective caused him to look at everything around him differently, with new eyes.
“A new heaven and new earth.” The word new could also be understood as previously unknown, something discovered. It might have been there all along but we did not have the understanding to acknowledge it. But John saw this previously unknown, new heaven and earth.
Heaven is a loaded concept as well. In ancient writings heaven can be one of many places. The Fowl of the heavens speaks of the birds that fly, they dwell in heaven the area above the earth or the sky. Then there is the heaven that encases the earth the sphere that surrounds us and arches above our heads, the shell from which the stars hang. The third heaven, the one referred to by Paul in in writings, is the dwelling place of God, beyond the sky and the sphere surrounding the earth, the place that arches over the stars. With this in mind John says that he saw a new heaven, a new or previously unknown atmosphere. A different air so to speak. One of my favorite songs is Build Your Kingdom Here by Rend Collective. There is a phrase in this song, “change the atmosphere” I like this phrase because it has the same feeling of this verse. Change the atmosphere or change the air we breathe, or breathe new life into us. Let us perceive the world around us from a different perspective. I saw a new heaven and a new earth.
John witnessed this vision and sent his testimony of it out to the churches at the dawn of the great persecutions that occurred during the first three hundred years of the church. People were looking at the world around them and seeing hate, fear, and revenge. Men, women, and children were being taken to the arena to be devoured for the entertainment of the masses, all because they professed Christ as Lord. They longed for peace, they yearned for a time and place where they could live their lives and raise their children unmolested by those devoted to hate. So when John wrote this letter to them and said that he then saw a new heaven and a new earth they would have heard the words saying that the there is a time very soon where things would change. There would be a different spirit, heaven, and there would be a different people, earth. A world that would be devoted to the ways of Christ instead of devoted to the ways of the advisory. He is telling them that from the perspective that God had shown him in his prophetic vision, the kingdom of God would prevail over the kingdoms of men. He is encouraging them not to lose heart, not to falter in their faith but to stand firm through it all because we will be victorious.
John wrote this Revelation to the churches of Asia. Churches that were primarily gentile, churches that were established areas of the Roman Empire and not just on the fringes of roman civilization. He wrote this to them because these people were going through a cultural and spiritual war. The kingdom of men feel threatened by a different concept. The kingdom of men live lifestyles devoted to selfishness and personal gain. The Roman Empire stretched across Europe to the British Isles, along the northern coast of Africa, across Turkey and into the Middle East. It stretched far and wide, not to bring hope to the people but to bring profit to the Emperor. War brought in loot, and conquered people provided tax revenue. Control over vast tracts of land gave control over scare resources which allowed for controlling interest in trade. When the people in the churches of Asia began to turn to Christ they began to live by a different lifestyle. The ideas and culture of the Empire began to lose traction and the control over the people they once had begun to wane. When people of authority begin to lose control, if their perspective is bent on selfishness, they begin to lash out to force conformity. But the followers of Christ would not change. They lived by a different culture identity and had a different source of security.
John wrote to these people to let them know that the struggles they face will not be in vain. There will be a new heaven and a new earth. There will be a change that will radically transform the entire world. But this change only comes when we become a people that live totally saturated in Christ. When our life and lifestyle reflects that of Jesus. When we move into the area of belief that goes beyond mere acknowledgment and trust, but entrusting our very existence and well-being into the hands of God. When we become a new person among a new people, when we become a nation dedicated to worship, prayer and service.
What keeps us from living this way in our world? This vision from John was not only for the distant future but was something that would be tangible to the very people that first heard the words. This is where the sea comes into play. Even though humanity had been traversing the seas for centuries the sea was still seen as a dreadful place. Water was seen as a place of death, those that are swallow beneath the wave did not return. This is part of the reason the Book of Jonah is so appealing. In many ancient cultures storms were caused do to humanity angering the gods, this concept even entered into the Jewish mindset. So when Jonah ran from God, the result was a raging sea, and the remedy was to have the one that angered God sacrificed for the good of the many. Jonah was swallowed by the great fish and was spit out onto dry land, he returned from the dead. Proving to the people of Nineveh that there is hope and forgiveness, in God. Other prophets spoke of God taking our sins and casting them out into the sea, where they would be lost and remembered no more. The sea represents a separation, a place that we cannot go, and obstacle. Fear is a sea, it will swallow us up, but John says there is no sea in the new heaven and new earth. There is nothing that separate mankind from God, and nothing to fear.
If there is no sea that separates us from God and no sea to fear, God will dwell with us and us with him. What keeps us from living in the new heaven and earth? Fear. We fear, we do not believe that God can do what he says he will do. We do not trust that God can take care of us. But why do we fear? We are seeing through the eyes of kingdom of mankind. Just like Jonah we do not want to let go of our prejudices. Just like Gideon we need signs to prove God is faithful before we can step out in faith. Why do we fear? Because we need a new perspective. This is the fifth Sunday of the season of Easter. Jesus who was once dead has risen and has now walked among his disciples for twenty-nine days. I mention this because for twenty-nine days Christ has proven that the greatest fear of mankind cannot stop the will of God. Imagine that for a moment, for almost an entire month Jesus walked with his disciples in those ancient days. For nearly a month Jesus spoke and ate with them all the while encouraging them to entrust their lives to the Father.
John tells those faithful churches in Asia that Jesus is true to his word, and there is hope beyond our struggles. I then saw a new heaven and a new earth. There is change in the air and a multitude of people will emerge from what once was dead dry bones. John is telling them not to fear because God is with them and we are with God, in the kingdom now and forevermore. Lord give us eyes to see and ears to hear! Give us strength to endure and heart that hope. Create and mold us into the new earth that will wipe away the tears and participate in making all things new. Lord change our atmosphere and let us be saturated with You.